A Fruitful Pursuit

An ambitious Sri Lankan horticultural venture aims to reap large rewards with a relatively new variety of a fabled ancient fruit

THE WORLD’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH MANGOES IS INTENSIFYING. THE GLOBAL TRADE IN MANGOES HAS GROWN BY AN AVERAGE OF FIVE PERCENT ANNUALLY OVER THE LAST TEN YEARS. IT IS NOT CALLED THE KING OF FRUITS FOR NOTHING. LEGEND HAS IT THAT THE BUDDHA WAS PRESENTED WITH A MANGO GROVE SO THAT HE COULD REST UNDER ITS SHADE. WHEN ARAHAT MAHINDA MET KING DEVANAMPIYATISSA (307–267BC) IN ANURADHAPURA, IT IS CLAIMED THAT THEIR FIRST CONVERSATION WAS ABOUT MANGO TREES.

It was the first choice among fruits for kings and emperors, and Buddhist rulers gave mangoes as gifts and used them as an important tool of diplomacy. Buddhist monks took mangoes with them wherever they went, popularizing the fruit. The Mahavamsa refers to mangoes and mango trees indicating that the mango has been cultivated in Sri Lanka for more than 2300 years.

Nanayakkara has invested in cutting-edge machinery, technology and infrastructure in preparation for the commercial production of fresh and processed mangoes on a large scale

India has been eloquently praising the fruit and eating it for more than 4000 years. Experts at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany (BSIP) have traced the origin of mango to the hills of Meghalaya in India from a 65 million-year-old fossil of a mango leaf. The western world has had it on its exotic fruit platters for the last 400 years. India’s famed Alphonso Mango is named after Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese general who won over Indian colonies. He used to carry them on his journeys to Goa, eating them after every satisfactory conquest. The Portuguese were fascinated by the fruit on their arrival in Kerala and introduced it to the world as mango. In fact, they were the first Europeans to use the grafting technique on mangoes. The major mango importing nations are the USA, China, Netherland, Germany and UK. Sri Lanka already exports mangoes to these countries on a small scale.

The top mango producing country in the world is India with production reaching over 18 million tons, which is approximately 50% of the global mango supply. Israel is an emerging mango superpower boasting the world’s highest yield per acre. India’s exports amount to €200 million in fresh mangoes and €100 million in processed mangoes. Netherlands is its largest buyer. China comes second with a market share of about ten percent. These two countries account for over half of global mango production. Other mango producing nations include Bangladesh, Thailand, Pakistan, Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil, Philippines and Egypt. In Sri Lanka, almost every home with a garden has a mango tree. Childhood best friends recalled in our memories are referred to as mango chums and there is a cultural attachment to the fruit through the mango achcharu and mango chutney. However, Sri Lankan exports are still miniscule. We lag far behind in the global export of mangoes (by value). Currently Sri Lanka caters to just 0.01% of the total mangoes imported by USA and the Netherland (in value terms).

W.G.E.G. Nanayakkara, a successful entrepreneur, wants to be the game changer by creating a market demand for mangoes grown in Sri Lanka. He is confident that it can be done and that Sri Lanka can now compete with a national mango (it is not the Karthakolomban or KC). Sri Lanka exports very minimal quantities and is not featured in the top 10 Asian countries exporting mangoes.

Sri Lanka’s TJC mangoes are claimed to be the world’s biggest and juiciest mango. When ripe, it is a beautiful golden orange colour, with an unblemished skin, excellent flavour and low fibre content

So confident is Nanayakkara in competing with the big boys that he is laying the groundwork for it by investing Rs 1 billion in cutting-edge machinery, technology and infrastructure in preparation for the commercial production of fresh and processed mangoes on a large scale.

After building a successful poultry business under the brand name of Nelna Farms from scratch, the transition to diversify into horticulture started when he saw a mango tree in a farm with exceptional looking mangoes. This was the TJC mango and the thought occurred to him that it would be good to plant some of these 20-foot trees on the bare land available on his poultry farms.

The TJC Mango was registered with the Department of Agriculture in 2003 and has been around for over a decade. When Dr. Juan Carlos, a Filipino consultant attached to the ADB based in Anuradhapura and landed proprietor Tom Ellawela got together to grow a superior quality mango for Sri Lanka in the Dambulla district after Ellawella lost money on his farmland having planted traditional varieties of Karthakolomban and Willard, they decided to create a new variety that could get acclimatized to the weather and soil conditions of the North-Western Province. The TJC was the result of many years of experiments. Finally, with the help of the Department of Agriculture, they created a mango that took less time to mature, had a superior fruit quality and high resistance to pests and diseases. Pests and diseases are a major concern among exporters of mangoes to the US, Europe and Australia. Indian mango exports were banned in the US in 1989 over pests in Alphonso mangoes that spread to American crops. In April 2007, the United States lifted its ban on the import of Indian mangoes after an 18-year hiatus.

Initially 50,000 plants were given to farmers to plant throughout the Mahaweli areas and the commercial feasibility of the fruit is continuing to contribute to the expansion of mango plantations in the North Central Province. Nanayakkara is confident that Sri Lanka’s TJC mangoes grown in the North Central Province under specific climatic conditions and its red loamy soil could compete in the international market against the popular fruits of leading mango producing countries.

The TJC mango tree starts to bear fruit in three years and has a lifespan of over 20 years. TJC is the biggest mango grown in Sri Lanka weighing at 500-600 grams, with some fruits growing up to a kilo. It is claimed to be the world’s biggest, juiciest mango. Though it takes time to ripen, when ripe it has a beautiful golden orange colour, an unblemished skin, excellent flavour, low fibre content and smooth flesh. It has a small seed. The tree yields fruit through eight months of the year unlike other indigenous species.

Nanayakkara, intrigued by the potential of this mango, bought 1000 plants 10 years ago to cultivate on his five poultry farms. He then began to do research on mangoes as a commercial export product, travelling to all the mango growing countries around the globe. After studying the international market dynamics and acquiring technical know-how for mangoes and mango-related products, he decided to diversify into the cultivation of mangoes for export through Nelna Agri Development farms. With the aim of producing Nelna mangoes as an export-oriented product, 60,000 trees have been planted across two plantations, one at Embilipitiya (150 acres) and the other at Moneragala, which at 500 acres is the largest mango plantation in the country. Each tree yields 150 kilos or 300 mangoes. In the local market, the mangoes retail at US$5.

The major mango producing districts in Sri Lanka have been identified as Kurunegala, Gampaha, Ratnapura, Matale, Hambantota, Monaragala, Puttalam and Matara.

Carefully selected fruits adhering to uniform quality grade 1 fruit standards will be exported as fresh produce to the Middle East, Europe and Singapore under the brand name ‘Nelna Mangoes.’ The company is confident that the sweetness levels of the fruits are above the international standard in grading (known as the Brix level). The international Brix level for mango sweetness is 11 to 14 percent.

Nelna mangoes are grown across two plantations, one at Embilipitiya (150 acres) and the other at Monaragala (500 acres)

In the case of Asian mangoes, the Brix level can even reach 22, which means that the mangoes during harvest will need careful handling. The Brix level of Nelna mangoes is placed between 22 percent and 24 percent. Currently the Carabao mango from the Phillipines called the “Champagne mango” by Americans lays claim to being the sweetest mango in the world and succeeded in being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. The island of Guimaras in the Philippines is said to produce the world’s best mangoes, which are reportedly served at both the White House and Buckingham Palace.

Nelna will invest Rs 500 million to set up two factories in the Monaragala District – in a mango pulp manufacturing plant and an Individual Quick Frozen (IQF) plant with machinery imported from the Netherlands. With the use of advanced technology, the company already exports mango pulp to Korea and Japan and will see an increase in their productivity.

Realizing that traditional freezing methods are not sufficient anymore, Nanayakkara sought the best freezing technology to deliver high quality products. His investment in an IQF plant, which will instantly quick freeze fruits, especially mangoes, will increase the scope for expansion into frozen fruits. Processed mango products produced in the country include mango pulp, juice, nectar, dried slices, mango wine, glazings and jams. Global revenue from IQF fruit in 2016 was estimated to be $8 billion.

With this investment the company will have the capacity to produce a variety of frozen fruits and vegetables that Nanayakkara says is currently wasted in the local market. At present, the post-harvest losses in the country are quite significant (about 10-20 percent in case of TJC mangoes), IQF technology frozen fruits have a shelf life of two years.

The company also uses modern technology like carbon-coated bags for packaging and to maintain right colour texture and protect from pesticides, he said. Every single fruit has to be plucked individually by hand for fear of bruising. The company also identifies the most appropriate agro-input products for the crop and advise or train farmers on the efficient use of agriculture inputs, playing an important role along the value chain to support farmers in their attempts to set up highly performing mango farms. Currently about 5000 families in Sri Lanka are engaged in the cultivation of TJC mangoes. Targeting an annual production of 10 million fruits by the year 2022, Nelna has set its sights high. The company is planning to expand its employee cadre to 3,000 people from the area with proper training in eco-friendly sustainable farming practices to handle 60,000 trees by the year 2022. This will generate a further 2700 employment opportunities for the people in these districts.

Nanayakkara wants his oldest daughter Punya to help him in this ambitious undertaking. Having completed her BA in Accounting and with a Masters in Supply Chain Management from Australia under her belt, she is currently being groomed by her father to guide the company into the international sphere. She says of her father, “He is smart, knows what he is talking about and no one can beat his knowledge.” The Nelna Group operates as a family-run company with only Punya from the second generation getting involved at present.

Another daughter is a doctor in the UK and a son works for MAS. The 57 year-old entrepreneur is not a talker, but a doer. Born in Ambalangoda, Galle, he worked in five different companies after earning a Diploma in Poultry Management. He started his career in 1985 working for companies in the poultry industry. As a hobby he began to buy and sell chicks keeping a commission of 25 cents. He started with 1000 chicks, and gradually built it to 5000 chicks per week, increasing his fee to five rupees. He started his own poultry business in 1996 with two farms leased and began to distribute chicks. Increasing his capacity to 450,000 chicks, he started to build a network of poultry breeders in the rural areas.

Nelna Farms today employs 1000 people. Their extended range now has ready-to-eat processed food and quality poultry feed.

“I used to travel at least 5000 kilometres a month,” he says, “I still clock in the miles.” Nanayakkara likes to be hands-on. His mango project is monitored by him to the extent that he stays at the site to make sure that when land is cleared for planting, he lives in the area to ensure that the whole process is implemented to perfection. “Going back to the land is the most satisfactory feeling for me,” he says. “The country is yet to achieve its full potential in terms of export.”

The sluggish growth in the export of fruits and vegetables , according to the 2017 ADB report, can be attributed to various gaps along the value chain of the key horticulture commodities. These gaps result in high post-harvest losses, limited processing, lower returns to farmers and low quality production. Therefore in order to increase exports of horticulture products from Sri Lanka, it is essential to identify the key gaps along the value chain and develop strategies to bridge them. Nelna has cleverly identified those gaps and set the wheels in motion.

The trees planted three years ago will see a harvest in 2018-19. He praises his team who have stood by him, some working with him for 15 to 18 years. “We pay above market rates to retain our employees, ” he says.

Mangoes will replace apples, Nanayakkara says. It will be the number one fruit consumed in the world and for Sri Lanka the potential of the mango as a valuable export commodity is enormous.